This review was corrected on July 15, 2004.
A simple love story set in China’s deep south during the Cultural Revolution, “The Foliage” is all the better for not playing to the gallery. Geographically similar to Chen Kaige’s “King of the Children,” though sans any arty pretensions or political messages, film is the first to give a clear-eyed view of average life among youngsters “sent down to the countryside.” Impressively quiet helming sophomore effort by Lu Yue, d.p. on Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” and “Shanghai Triad,” deserves festival exposure, even if its delicate qualities don’t augur much theatrical action. Film went out in China in March.
Set in the sub-tropical province of Yunnan, pic largely takes place during 1974, near the end of the political movement in which “intellectuals,” a loose term for city-dwellers, volunteered or were forced to work in rural areas. Ye Xingyu (Taiwan-born actress Shu Qi) is a local girl looking to leave her brigade to care for her paralyzed father in Kunming — a process that demands reams of paperwork. Returning from a visit to the regional commander, she hops a bus and meets live-wire Liu Simeng (Mainland thesp Liu Hua, from “Lan Yu”).
Simeng is enraptured with her; Xingyu thinks he’s just a pushy kid from Beijing. She’s also effectively engaged to childhood friend Yuan Dingguo (Fang Bin), who works in the same brigade on a rubber-plantation commune. Dingguo is dedicated to the Party line of helping “develop the frontier”; Xingyu is equally sincere, teaching local minorities Mandarin.
When a fight breaks out between locals and out-of-towners, Simeng backs off at Xingyu’s request. But Dingguo’s brigade members still want payback, and when Xingyu starts visiting Simeng in his forest hideaway all kinds of jealousies are perked. In two sizable postscripts, one after the fall of the Gang of Four and the other in the present, Xingyu reaches a kind of closure on her curious half-romance with the charismatic Simeng.
Film shows a refreshing lack of condescension toward the Maoist politics of the era. Friendships between the brigade members, especially Xingyu and her girlfriend, Weihong (Qi Huan), are sketched in a natural way, and tensions between locals and transplanted city dwellers are noted without becoming schematic.
Most of all, the movie, based on a novel by Frank Shi (a U.S. resident since ’86), doesn’t put its characters or their feelings into labeled boxes. Right up to the “but-what-if” coda, there are question marks over Xingyu’s exact feelings toward the two men in her life. Auds looking for clear signposts may consider the film insubstantial; others may surrender to its easy, flowing style and acute sense of place, with lensing that catches the humid heat and green-drenched topography.
One of China’s upcoming male stars, Liu is especially captivating as the cocky Simeng, nicely balanced by Fang’s sincere but more boring Dingguo. As the woman in their midst, Shu Qi successfully reins in her usual sexy persona, though tends to equate low-key acting with mumbling. Pic is also known under the even worse English title, “Years Without Epidemic”; Chinese title literally means “Beauty Grass.”